Sunday, April 17, 2016

rahut and rahit

Two Hebrew words that seem to have similar roots, but very different meanings are rahut רהוט - "fluent" and rahit רהיט - "furniture" (as in a piece of furniture, the general term for furniture is rihut ריהוט).

Let's look at rahut first. This derives from the Aramaic root רהט, meaning "to run", and it's cognate with the Hebrew equivalent - רוץ. (The letters tzade and tet can switch between Hebrew and Aramaic, as can also be seen in the words tzel צל - "shade" and טלל - "to overshadow", the root of talit טלית). From the meaning "to run", we also get "to flow". This meaning appears in the word rahat רהט meaning "watering trough" in Bereshit 30:38,41 and Shemot 2:16, as well as the word rahut, which is first found in Medieval Hebrew (fluent and flow are related in English as well).

The story of rahit is less clear. It only appears once in the Tanach, in Shir HaShirim 1:17

קֹרוֹת בָּתֵּינוּ אֲרָזִים רַהִיטֵנוּ בְּרוֹתִים

"Cedars are the beams of our house, our rafters (rahiteinu) are cypresses"

Rahit as "rafter" appears in Talmudic Hebrew as well, but only in modern times did the meaning change to "furniture." Why?

In this article (and here in Hebrew), Elon Gilad writes that the synonym used in the verse, kora קורה - "beam" had become much more popular, and so rahit was in danger of being forgotten. So Eliezer Ben-Yehuda rescued the word for the concept of  "furniture", which was no longer an item just for the rich. He was influenced by the Arabic word rihat, which had a similar meaning. Stahl adds that in the Talmud we find the phrase רהיטי ביתו - rihitei beito, which then meant "the rafters of his house", but the early writers of modern Hebrew would find that an appropriate phrase for various articles used in the house.

The only question that remains is, are the two terms related? Klein doesn't say so, but there are some sources that hint to a possibility. The Daat Mikra on Bereshit 30:38 points out that the troughs were made of korot (beams), but doesn't actually say that this indicates a connection between rahat and rahit.  Steinberg, in Milon HaTanach, does say they derive from the same root, but doesn't explain how. Similarly, in this more recent book a connection is made, but I don't quite understand (other than an Aramaic connection).

The best citation I could find that does connect the terms is the BDB, which defines rafters as "strips running between beams." We find that usage in English as well, for a "runner" can also mean something spanning some distance, as in the runners of a sled or a carpet spanning a hallway.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Not long ago, on Purim, we read Megilat Esther, and in the megila appears the word pitgam פתגם. The word also appears in other late biblical books such as Kohelet, Ezra and Daniel. In Biblical Hebrew the word means "edict" or "decree", but in modern Hebrew the sense is less strict, and means "idiom" or "proverb".

What is the etymology of the word? Klein mentions Aramaic and Syriac cognates pitgama פתגמא meaning "word, command", and writes that they are all

borrowed from Persian. Compare Old Persian pratigama, Persian *patgam, which properly mean 'that which has come to, that which has arrived'

Since Persian is an Indo-European language, I was curious if there were any cognates in English. This site and this book suggest that patgam is cognate with the Greek pthegma which means "(spoken) word", and is found in the English word apophthegm, which more commonly appears in American English as apothegm - meaning "pithy saying" - nearly an identical meaning to the modern sense of pitgam in Hebrew. (I don't have evidence that the Greek sense influenced the modern meaning, but on the other hand, I don't know why there was a change from the Biblical - and Rabbinic - meanings to the modern one).

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this etymology for apothegm:

from Greek apophthegma "terse, pointed saying," literally "something clearly spoken," from apophthengesthai "to speak one's opinion plainly," from apo- "from" + phthengesthai "to utter."

Another word on that site with a common origin is diphthong:

late 15c., from Middle French diphthongue, from Late Latin diphthongus, from Greek diphthongos "having two sounds," from di- "double"  + phthongos "sound, voice," related to phthengesthai "utter, speak loudly."

We've seen the concept of diphthong on Balashon before, even though I didn't use the official term, when we discussed the origins of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter "bet" derives from the word bayit בית (house). Some locations in ancient Israel pronounced words with a diphthong - bayit, yayin, zayit and others without - bet, yen, zet. The versions without the diphthong are preserved such cases as the letter "bet" and in the semichut form.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

sipuk and safek

Is there a connection between the words sipuk סיפוק - "satisfaction" and safek ספק - "doubt"? They both appear to have the same root, but no obvious connection springs to mind. Let's take a closer look.

If we look in the Tanach, we notice two things. First of all, the root appears also with the letter sin - שפק. (By Rabbinic Hebrew, however, we only see it with a samech.) Secondly, there is a third meaning - "to strike" or "to clap (hands)". In fact, this meaning is the most common one found (even though it is almost never used in modern Hebrew). According to Even-Shoshan's concordance, it accounts for all seven times the root ספק appears in the Tanach.

Even-Shoshan claims that the root שפק means "to satisfy" three times - twice as a verb (Melachim I 20:10, Yeshaya 2:6) and once as a noun (Iyov 20:22). In modern Hebrew we find many uses of ספק meaning "to be sufficient, to suffice". The piel form - sipek סיפק can mean both "to satisfy" and "to supply". The hifil form hispik הספיק can also mean "to supply", but also can mean "to be sufficient, adequate, enough" and " to enable, to succeed". So if I write הספקתי לכתוב hispakti l'khtov - that means "I succeeded in writing" (usually within a desired period of time). The hitpael form הסתפק histapek means "to be satisfied, content". And of course the exclamation מספיק maspik - means "enough!".

What about safek meaning doubt? It appears frequently from Rabbinic Hebrew onwards, but it's not clear if it is found in Biblical Hebrew as well. The one verse that might have that usage is Iyov 36:18. The verse says כִּי-חֵמָה פֶּן-יְסִיתְךָ בְסָפֶק (this is the form in the Aleppo and Leningrad codices, but many printed variants have בשפק). The Koren Tanach translates the word v'safek using the sense of clapping hands:

"But beware of wrath, lest he take thee away with his clenched fist"

The New JPS translation connects the word to the meaning "to satisfy":

"Let anger at his affluence not mislead you"

A third possibility, that it means "doubt" is mentioned by a number of scholars - Even Shoshan in his concordance (although he does follow this up with a question mark), Klein in his dictionary (quoting "some scholars") and in the notes to Ben Yehuda's dictionary which mentions translators and commentators that explain the word as "doubt or hesitation". Aside from the Malbim (who I doubt they were referring to), I was unable to find which translations give this explanation for safek.

Now back to my original question - do these roots have any connection? Klein does not connect them at all, and even Steinberg in his Milon HaTanach, who frequently makes clever, if not convincing, connections between similar roots, doesn't connect the meanings "satisfy" and "doubt". (He does, however, say that the sense "to strike" and "satisfy, abundance" both derive from a sense meaning "to make a lot of noise" - applying to the sound of the striking, as well as the noise from a home with much wealth.)

I was surprised, however, to find that Even-Shoshan in his dictionary did make a connection. Regarding safek meaning "doubt", he says that perhaps it comes from an earlier sense meaning "bound" - in other words, a thing in doubt is "bound up" until it is solved. This sense of "bound" is found in Talmudic Hebrew, for example in the Mishna (Para 12:1 - although Kehati there says the word has the sense of "adequate"). Even-Shoshan then writes the meaning "to join, attach" is related to the meaning "to suffice" (as does Klein). They don't explain why  - but perhaps when you supply something to a person, or they have a sufficient amount, it is as if that thing is attached to them.

Are you satisfied that the words are related? I'm in doubt...